(Editor's note: Photos of this article are available
here. Everything in Jon's
handwriting is in [brackets]. Everything in bold is stuff
Jon highlighted or circled. Some graphics could not be reproduced
in text, e.g., Jon playing tic-tac-toe in the margins.
See the pics for those details.)
The smartest, most innovative show
on TV is not Frontline or Nightline . . . or any Line. It is a
small news show on Comedy Central hosted by a wiseass kid from
New Jersey who has to comment on everything. [Annotated by
Jon Stewart didn't want us to write
this profile. [This is bullshit. What a hatchet job. Who do
you people think you ... oh wait ... there's more.] Well, he wasn't
sure anyway. I pleaded, his publicist begged, but Stewart had
to think about it, let us sweat a little. So was he being a bit
of a diva, I ask later? No, he insists. Just insecure. Stewart
says he was worried an Esquire cover was simply too much of a
good thing. He's on a roll like no other in his thirty-seven
years, [I'm 38, although I'm told I can play 37.] and he thought
maybe, just maybe, this would kick off a backlash.
"It's like the Skittles commercial,"
he explains. "The Skittles rainbow comes up and all the Skittles
come ring down and you start to wonder, When are they going to
run out of Skittles?" He's got a point, I suppose. Aside from
the occasional misstep -- the lukewarm Grammy Awards gig
comes to mind -- [Here's something sad. I thought that went well.]
life has been pretty sweet of late for this shortish Jewish guy
from Jersey. Consider: He was just profiled by 60 Minutes.
("At first I thought they were coming because of that organ donor
business I run out of my backyard," he says.") [Excellent use
of a parenthetical.] He recently got married. He and his colleagues
snagged a Peabody Award. ("I was excited when I found out what
it was.") [Way too much. The parenthetical thing's gettin' old.]
And he gets paid $1.5 million [Lira] a year to do a fake news
program -- The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, on Comedy Central
-- that just happens to provide the smartest comedy on TV.
Stewart tells me about his Skittles-and-skittishness
theory one night after the show. We're in his Manhattan office
-- exposed brick, gum-ball machines, Neil Diamond poster
[It's actually Lenny Bruce. But you know how we all look alike.]
-- and I've finally got him for a couple hours. My notebook's
out, my recorder's on, and I'm ready to hear about his rise
from high school outcast to kiddie-show puppeteer to host of the
town. [I bet it's a fascinating sto ... zzzzzzzzz]
Only problem is, Stewart refuses to stay on
topic. He has his TV on CNN, and the man can't stop watching it
over my shoulder. A newscaster us talking about Aaron Sorkin,
the creator of the West Wing, who has been busted for psychedelic
mushrooms. "Can you believe that to create a show about government
that seems relevant, the guy had to be on mushrooms? That's fucking
Stewart takes a swig [Can you swig bottled
water?] of his Poland Spring, wipes his mouth. He's somewhere
between bemused and mildly pissed. Okay, um, we were discussing
your childhood in Jersey . . . .
"Oh, come on," he says. CNN is now covering
the scandal over Jackass, the MTV show accused of inspiring
deadly copycat stunts. "Don't they know that teenagers are going
to do retarded things without Jackass? What about cartoons? When
you were a kid, didn't you ever put up an enormous rubber band
and then slingshot yourself on roller skates after a quickly moving
bird?" [<-- True Story.]
Stewart grabs a Wilson football from his desk
and starts tossing it in the air. Despite vigorous scrubbing,
he's still got that hint of that weird beige anchorman make
up on his face. [My actual skin color.] He's five foot
six [I'm 5'7", but I'm told I can play 5'6".] and his head
is slightly oversized and he's started to gray around the temples,
but he's relatively handsome man. Cute, the girls call him. He's
wearing a blue sweatshirt with the sleeves pulled up to expose
arm hair [Enough. People may be eating.] which is abundant
enough to insulate him though those cold New York winters.
[Sexist!!! Would you be so concerned about my appearance if I
were a woman? A woman with a penis?]
So you were saying about Jersey . . . The phone
rings. It's Stewart's wife, Trac[e]y, a veterinary student. Earlier
today, Trac[ie] came to the office and tidied up-newspapers, unopened
packages, the occasional Playboy, everything in stacks and boxes.
Like any man, Stewart's got mixed feelings about this. "You
found a piece of babka on my desk?" He says to Trac[ee]. "From
Chanukah? Oh, my God! Was it good?" ["Jewey Jew a piece of
Jew on my Jew?" he says to Tracey. "From Jewekah? Oh my Jew. Was
it Jewey?"] Since Stewart's distracted, we'll have to get back
to childhood stuff. [Oh good] In the meantime, take note: His
Daily Show is to current comedy what Saturday Night
Live was to '70s comedy -- surprising, groundbreaking, and
sure to be imitated. Haven't seen it? Go up your dial, way up,
a couple clicks past the Spanish guy in the bee costume (Stewart's
joke). [Heelarius]. There, every weekday dressed in a suit and
tie, Stewart sits behind a desk in midtown New York, shuffles
some papers, looks at the camera, and completely and totally subverts
the media establishment. Think of Leno's monologue, but far
more cerebral. Think H.L. Mencken, but with hair gel. [Think
Conrad Bain but with a superfluous nipple. Think Napoleon but
with attitude ... for the '90s ... on acid.]
Stewart kicks of the show with a series of faux
headlines, [This may all be correct. I've never actually seen
the program.] the best of which take aim at the bloated Hollywood-Washington
machine, such as this one, about the Golden Globes: "Julia Roberts
came accompanied by the sun -- which shines only for her." Throughout
the half hour, Stewart will throw one of his five "correspondents"
-- Mo Rocca, Steve Carell, Vance DeGeneres, Stephen Colbert, and
Nancy Walls -- who mock field reports as deftly as he mocks anchors.
Watch Carell do an inflammatory investigation on the latest threat
to humanity: gravity. Or watch Rocca ambush John McCain on the
campaign trail and demand he name Iceland's best musical export
(correct answer: Bjork). It was brilliant moment. Indeed, the
show's masterful through the skewed filter of comedy than through
Tom Brokaw's solemn pronouncements. And Stewart, like his namesake
Swift, may be his era's best truth teller. [Or like his namesake
Livingston Seagull, may be this era's best provider of painfully
obvious pop-psycho platitudes.]
Despite Stewart's initial uncertainty about
doing this article, I'm starting to think he's not a diva after
all. Ask his friends; they'll tell you. Neurotic, sleep-deprived,
insecure, worried he's getting old, afflicted with a touch of
the sad-clown syndrome, yes. [You nailed it!! Have you been
reading my courage journal?] But diva? Not this mench. "He asks
about every tiny detail of things that are important in your life,"
says Madeline Smithberg, executive producer of The Daily Show,
"and he isn't feigning. He knows the eating habits of everyone
and he knows when all the camera guys are pooping." [Because
someday that will be a question on Millionaire, and I will answer
it and win.]
And he does ask about my life, He asks about
my my wife, Julie, my apartment my heath, [When are you
pooping?] my magazine. He wants to know whom we would have put
on the cover if not him. I tell him we were considering not having
a photo, just a typewritten text. "It was me or Helvetica?" he
says. "I'm much easier to work with than Helvetica. Helvetica
demands hair, makeup, the works." No doubt about it: Helvetica
is the funniest font. [Times Roman is the most dignified font.
Chicago the most enigmatic. Geneva gets laid the most.] Stewart
just knows from funny: It's effortless for him. So how'd he develop
that infallible humor sonar? Let's finally get to that childhood.
Jonathan Stewart Leibowitz was born in Trenton,
new Jersey in 1963. [1962. Although I'm told I can play
... Enough with that joke.] His father was a physicist for RCA,
his mother, an educational consultant. In high school, Stewart
wasn't exactly homecoming king. We're talking a concave chest,
skin with the topography of the Swiss Alps [ouch], the whole geeky
shebang. Which, of course created the best recipe for a comedic
mind, instilling in the young suburbanite a perfectly balanced
mixture of self-loathing and the craving for love. [Blah, blah]
Stewart attended William & Mary,
[Ouch] graduated, suffered through a daytime bartending gig at
a Mexican restaurant, then moved to New York. Stewart himself
did some heavy drinking during this period. He also ingested
chemicals not sanctioned by the FDA a practice he insists he stopped.
[Mostly mercury. Beat that, Downey Jr.] He tried stand-up for
the first time at the Bitter End, bombed, went back, got better,
earned a little extra scratch doing a kiddie show with disabled
puppets, and finally scored again hosting his own successful MTV
talk show. Which he promptly ditched. He left behind to take on
the Big Boys -- Leno and Letterman -- with a syndicated talk show.
Not smart. No one watched. Things got so bad, Stewart tried to
scare up some ratings with a little stunt: One of his writers
came out as the first guest . . . dressed as Hitler. Stewart asked
Hitler about his upcoming project. "Czechoslovakia, Poland," said
Hitler. "You never know with me." Stewart's bosses called before
the taping was over-and they were not amused. The Hitler sketch
never aired. [A sentence you'll find in almost every article
in Esquire.] Soon after, Stewart learned about the cancellation
of his show from the New York Post.
So he cast about for a while. He wrote
a book titled Naked Pictures of Famous People which he calls a
"shitty Without Feathers," but which is actually the best
of all books by standup comics. The piece on Martha Stewart's
Vagina is worth the price of admission. He appeared semiregularly
on the ingenious Larry Sanders Show. He popped up in handful
of movies of no major consequence. (The Faculty, anyone?)
[Even I'm no longer paying attention -- and this is my life]
He was completely edited out of the First Wives Club. [I
also spent some time as a drug mule. When I quit they gave me
a gold-plated condom. I still have it up my ass. Sentimental value.]
And then he took over on The Daily Show
from six-foot-four blonde guy named Craig Kilborn, who left behind
a gift: a phone book for Stewart to sit on.
Stewart is now sitting behind the
Daily Show desk, no phone book necessary. When he first arrived,
he had a smaller desk built, which he says is typical Stewartian
fashion, looks like furniture from a dollhouse. [Let me guess.
I'm really not a tall man!!] He's wearing a beige Canali suit,
a rust colored tie, and black hiking boots. His hair is swooped
back in a mini pompadour. [The year is 1953.]
It's right before a taping, and Stewart's doing
a free form warm-up shtick that ranges in topic from Ebola to
wacky ties. The audience is laughing. But for some reason, the
right side of the crowd is laughing harder than the left side.
Stewart picks up on this. "This side still can't believe they
couldn't get tickets to Conan," he shouts. "They cannot be entertained!
They are unentertainable. They are ringers from the third season
of Make Me Laugh!" He walks over to the left side,"But
I do want to welcome a big group from the Stoics convention."
To give them a jolt, Stewart resorts to slapstick.
He tells the audience that he gets into his anchor chair the same
way Starsky and Hutch got in their car. He runs toward the desk,
jumps slide his ass across the desktop and lands in the chair-exactly
wrong way, wit the groin against the chairs back. "Do you need
both testicles?", he wheezes. [Note to self: Get high after show,
not before. It's affection your warm-up.]
Crotch humor aside, what's The Daily Show's
appeal to this fresh-out-the-dorm audience? Ask Stewart and you'll
get this answer: "Because kids today love media analysis. I say,
to them, 'Who's your favorite celebrity?' and without fail they
say, 'Howie Kurtz.'" Howard Kurtz is the media critic for The
Washington Post and perhaps the most boring man alive.
[You've obviously never asked Mark Russell what's new.] Stewart
continues: "Eminem and Howie Kurtz, but I gotta say, Howie Kurtz
more thank Eminem. An the weird thing is, they're all imitating
Howie. There was an eleven-year-old kid in Oklahoma who nearly
killed himself criticizing the Post's reporting of the Bush DWI
The real answer is this: People are fed up
with the news. As is Stewart. He hates its relentlessness,
its pomposity, it's onanism, [Did you just slip a reference
to jerking off? That is so awesome.] its faux concern, its
co-option of show-business salesmanship [I do like their theme
music.] -- and his anger fuels his humor, giving it depth, subversive
power, and righteousness. "He has this internal barometer of what's
right and what's wrong," says Smithberg. "He has a very sensitive
justice meter. He's just way to smart for that little body."
[Are you all suggesting I lack physical size?] But unlike, say,
Dennis Miller, when Stewart lashes out, it's a tempered rage.
"When he tells a joke that compromising to somebody its done with
a certain level of shame," [Everything in my life is done
with a certain level of shame ....] says Gillian Anderson, who
starred opposite Stewart in 1998's mediocre Playing By Heart.
"It's kind of got a built-in apology to it."
Stewart himself will soon be making the rounds
on other talk shows, promoting Death to Smoochy, a Danny
Devito-directed movie in which he plays a sleazy network executive.
So far, his acting career hasn't exactly achieved liftoff
[Clearly you never saw my turn as Rollerblader #1 in Mixed
Nuts.] mostly because he's chosen a string of mediocre movies.
He's not as bad actor, truth to tell, though he's best when playing
some version of Jon Stewart. So what will the real Jon Stewart
be doing in five years? Will he grow restless as the king of basic
cable? "I'm looking to branch out into dramatic tearjerker roles,"
Stewart says. "Never having been able to pull something like that
off, even in real life, I now would like to try it. Because why
would you want to do the thing you're good at? Do the other thing,
the thing you're not good at." Typical Stewart. A nonanswer, slightly
off topic. But it's just clever enough that you gotta forgive
the guy -- and hope that he never runs out of Skittles.
[I promised myself I wasn't gonna cry, but ... that line is going
in the courage journal.]